A Remedy Against a Divided Mexico; The First Indigenous Woman for President?

On the 28th of May 2017 María de Jesús Patricio Martínez , an indigenous women from the Nahua community in the Western state of Jalisco, was designated by the National Indigenous Congress as their representative for the Mexican federal elections in 2018. With this nomination she became the first indigenous Mexican woman in the country’s history to postulate for the position. In a Mexico in which indigenous communities suffer severe discrimination and where the political landscape is characterized by rampant corruption, this nomination is exceptional … and hopeful.

  • © CNI Mexico María de Jesús Patricio Martínez © CNI Mexico
  • PetrohsW (CC-BY-SA-4.0) María de Jesús Patricio Martínez PetrohsW (CC-BY-SA-4.0)
  • @ 2016 Gente de Tierra y Nubes Woman in San Juan Tabaá, Oaxaca @ 2016 Gente de Tierra y Nubes

Maize and sugar plantations are the main source of income for the rural Tuxpan community, in which Particio was born and raised. And apart from its agricultural economy, Tuxla is also much like other indigenous communities in Mexico in that it struggles with poor infrastructure and a lack of means to maintain education and health services. 

Patricio is the symbol of a largely underrepresented Mexico in which the wisdom of pre-columbian times is feverishly trying to survive

Patricio was an active member in her community from a young age onwards. At the age of 20 she started to practice traditional medicine, and throughout the years she continued to absorb the ancient knowledge that her Nahua community members had to offer.

Now, at age 53, she continues to apply her knowledge to cure patients, often too poor to have access to regular medicine, by herbal treatments in the local health centre that she runs. As a traditional healer and community leader, Patricio is the symbol of a largely underrepresented Mexico, in which the wisdoms of pre-Columbian times is feverishly trying to survive.

National Indigenous Congress  

PetrohsW (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

María de Jesús Patricio Martínez

After the fifth National Indigenous Congress (NIC) in San Cristobal in the Southern state of Chiapas, however, Patricio’s role as a community leader changes considerably. In the congress, organized by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and in which leaders of indigenous communities from around the country gather, Patricio was nominated to represent the National Indigenous Congress in the Federal elections of 2018.  

The National Indigenous Assembly in its own saying gathers with the purpose of “constructing a society in which all cultures, colours and villages, all of us who are Mexico, fit.” In this strand, Patricio’s position would be one more of a spokesperson than one of president in the current understanding of the position.

The goal is to do away with the Mexican political establishment, and to build a new kind of political engagement bottom-up.

 She draws from indigenous systems of governance, which holds that decisions are made starting in community and regional assemblies, and which works towards inclusion of all in a pluricultural Mexico. Quite a challenge, knowing that the country counts 68 indigenous languages and an even greater ethnic diversity.

The National Indigenous Congress works hard to voice the demands and needs of the indigenous and disadvantaged communities throughout the country. The goal is to do away with the Mexican political establishment, and to build a new kind of political engagement bottom-up.

The National Indigenous Congress presents its political approach as follows:

  • Obey and not command.
  • Represent and not supplant.
  • To go from below and not from above.
  • To serve and not serve oneself.
  • To convince and not beat.
  • To construct and not destroy.
  • To propose and not impose.

Structural Violence and Underrepresentation

The efforts of the NIC to combat marginalization and underrepresentation of indigenous communities do not come without a reason. Whilst the Mexican prime minister Enrique Peña Nieto flatters his administration by saying that they have invested a record amount of 21.5 billion pesos in infrastructure for indigenous villages the indigenous leaders that gather at the NIC are far from impressed.

Environmental degradation, displacement and the erosion of community life are a direct results of these mega-projects.   

And indeed, they have a good reasons to be skeptical. Indigenous villages in Mexico are suffering from the destruction of their ancestral lands, where mining companies and large infrastructural projects are being imposed. Environmental degradation, displacement and the erosion of community life are a direct results of these mega-projects.   

The  political elite of Mexico, especially since the signing of the NAFTA agreement in 1994 in which free trade between the US, Canada an Mexico was instigated, has largely prioritized economic gain for few rather than socioeconomic wellbeing of its entire population.

The study of The Impact of NAFTA on Mexico, published by the Commission for Dialogue with Indigenous Communities in Mexico, shows that NAFTA agreement displaced great quantities of local farmers who could no longer compete against big agricultural cooperatives such as Monsanto, and has thereby generated an important migration to the large urban Centres in Mexico and the United States.

These developments, the commission argues, has greatly impoverished farmers and in turn increased criminalization in the cities where employment remains scarce. While the NAFTA may have increased trade and has boosted foreign investment in the country, the Mexican state has failed severely in protecting its rural and indigenous communities.

@ 2016 Gente de Tierra y Nubes

Woman in San Juan Tabaá, Oaxaca

Also the cultural and linguistic heritage of indigenous communities in Mexico are under pressure.The loss of land and the lack of support for infrastructure in indigenous communities facilitates the processes of linguistic and cultural extinctions currently taking place in the country.

The NIC decries marginalization and underrepresentation of indigenous groups in the government as well as the lack of involvement in the decision making processes that determine local policies. Since Mexico’s independence in 1831, it has only counted with one indigenous president: Benito Juáres who ruled between 1885 and 1872. In the meantime, about 15.7 million indigenous people in the country lack basic access to health and education, and suffer severe forms of poverty.   

Does She Make a Chance? 

The presidential elections of 2018 in Mexico are the first ones to allow for independent candidates to take part, this only when they gather 850.000 signatures from the Mexican public. Whilst the efforts of the INC are admirable, their choice to present Patricio in the elections through an independent party invites a skeptical reaction with political analysists and other parties in Mexico. 

Progressives argue that the independent candidate who is supported by the Zapatistas will only take votes away from the institutionalized Leftists.

The main critiques comes from the progressive sectors, who argue that the independent candidate who is supported by the Zapatistas will only take votes away from the institutionalized Leftists. They argue that the real result of this candidacy will be an even greater electoral gain for the bigger parties that have reigned the Mexican political landscape since its independence: the PRI,  PAN, and other big parties, like Morena.

Nevertheless, even if the chance of the independent candidate actually winning the elections is highly unlikely, in a way the appeal of the NIC is already successful.

María de Jesús Patricio Martínez’ Participation in the elections unveils that what many prefer to negate: that Mexico is a profoundly racist country, in which ethnicity and colour of skin are major determinants of wellbeing, and in which millions live and work in marginalized and inhumane conditions.